It’s Alive … With Music

It’s Alive … With Music

Artist, Engineer Brings Musical Robots to Dayton

By Tim Anderl

In the 1950s, children armed themselves with the phrase “Klaatu barada nikto” and pulled covers over their heads each night with the fear that The Day The Earth Stood Still’s large robot Gort might appear with laser eyes threatening to disintegrate them.

In 2012, and with decades of previous experience with robots, the technology is more likely perceived by people today as less threatening and more exciting.  In addition to vacuuming floors, performing manufacturing and production tasks, filling prescriptions and digging in mines, robots are even used to safeguard soldiers in dangerous warfare environments (as depicted in Best Picture Oscar winner The Hurt Locker).  Eric Singer, a musician, artist, engineer and programmer, leverages robotic technology and has married his disciplines to produce musical robots (MusicBots) for yet another purpose — entertainment.

In late March, Singer will visit Dayton, presenting Living in the Future: Music, Instruments & Technology at the University of Dayton as part of their Arts Series.  Founded in 1961, the University of Dayton’s Arts Series presents performing arts programs that previously included art and entertainment luminaries such as Marian Anderson, Van Cliburn, Marcel Marceau, Jack Nicholson and the Kronos Quartet.   The programs are open to students and members of the community alike.

Tuesday, March 27 at 8p.m., Singer discusses his art and innovation in a free lecture at UD’s Sears Recital Hall, Jesse Phillips Humanities Center.  Then, on Wednesday, March 28 at 8p.m. Eric Singer presents a performance by MusicBOTs featuring Taylor Kufner and the Gamelatron (a robotic gamelan).

Originating in the Far East, a gamelan is a complex percussion instrument typically requiring a host of musicians to play it.  In contrast, the Gamelatron is modeled after traditional Balinese and Javanese gamelan orchestras, and is the world’s first and only fully robotic gamelan.  It features sets of classic instruments in ornate frames with custom robotic counter parts. MIDI sequences control up to 170 robotic striking mechanisms that produce intricately woven rhythmic sound.  The fruit of collaboration between multi-media artist Aaron “Taylor” Kuffner with The League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots (LEMUR), it is played by a single artist, who operates it via a computer keyboard.

“Mr. Kuffner is the composer and performer for the Gamelatron.  The project grew out of an artist residence that he had with LEMUR and we’ve [worked] together to build and maintain his growing ensemble,” said Singer.  “He will be performing this music and improvising live, so some of the music that people will hear will be made up on the spot.”

“This performance will be a concert of really fantastic music, but it will also appeal to people who are interested in the technology that goes on behind the scenes to help make that music,” explained Singer.  “This will be of interest to kids as well as adults.  It is really a convergence of modern DJ culture and ancient forms of Indonesian music.  It is really a collision between new and old world sounds.”

Singer, who holds a degree in Computer Engineering from Carnegie Mellon, a degree in Music Synthesis from Berklee College of Music and a graduate degree in Computer Science from New York University, has experimented and innovated with robotics and music for the last 20 plus years.  He has experimented with electronic musical instruments, the interaction between music and video systems, and has networked multimedia with robotics.

“I grew up playing saxophone, but I also had an interest in computers and electronics,” said Singer.  “In the ‘90s I was creating a lot of electronic instruments that were human playable, but then I decided to reverse the equation and have the computer do the playing to be performed with live musicians.  The instruments themselves were computer controlled robotic acoustic instruments.”

Singer, who has also taught as an adjunct professor at the New York University Interactive Telecommunication Program, will be demoing one such instrument, the Guitarbot, in UD classrooms the week of his visit.

Singer is also an accomplished musician who has toured and recorded with many bands on tenor, alto and baritone saxes.  He is known internationally for his software and hardware products for interactive art and music creation, and is considered a leading expert in the use of sensors and robotics in music and art.  Fans of The Learning Channel’s “Junkyard Wars” may recognize him from their television viewing.  He’s a founding member of the Brooklyn guerilla arts group The Madagascar Institute, and captained their team on an episode of the program.

In 2000, his passion for musical robots resulted in LEMUR, a group of artists and technologists founded by Singer for the creation of exotic, sculptural musical instruments infused with robotic technology.

“This is a group that focuses on building instruments and creating a new kind of musical ensemble that is robotic and that also sounds great,” said Singer. “Our goal is that people will come away from the ensembles’ performances with the feeling that they’ve seen a great concert, not just that they’ve seen a great robotical concert.”

The group has created a variety of computer-controlled mechanized acoustic musical instruments that can perform music by and with human musicians.  Additionally, LEMUR creates interactive installations for museums and galleries featuring musical robots, computer-generated video and motion tracking to create an immersive sonic and visual experience.

LEMUR presents concerts around the world featuring their instruments, often in collaboration with renowned composers and performers.  Some of their past collaborators have included They Might Be Giants, Jim Thirlwell (Foetus), Morton Subotnick, George Lewis, Ikue Mori, Todd Reynolds and Ben Neill.  A variety of supporters have embraced the organization, and they have received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the Rockefeller Foundation, the New York State Council on the Arts, and others.

“I really appreciate art that is complex and entertaining, so when I create something, I’m likely to create experiential or participatory art,” said Singer.  “This visit and Kuffner’s concert is that kind of performance: one where audiences will walk away feeling as though they’ve had an experience that is stimulating, that they weren’t likely to see elsewhere, and above all, that they’ve been entertained.

(For more information about UD’s Arts Series, visit: http://www.udayton.edu/artssciences/artsseries/. The Tuesday lecture is free.  General admission for the Wednesday performance is $15, UD alumni, faculty & staff admission is $10 and student tickets are $5. Purchase in advance through the UD Box Office in KU lobby (229-2545) or at the door.)

Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Anderl at TimAnderl@DaytonCityPaper.com.

[Photo: Michelle Ettlin]

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